How Hiring Decisions Go Wrong…

Can we trust our instant impressions and snap decisions?

My interest was sparked this week by a report from Anderson Cooper on CNN. Researchers are doing studies on young children and racial biases. It’s interesting because children of very young ages and of all races and ethnic mixtures are indicating they believe that lighter skin has more positive associations than darker tones.

And this bias was showing up in darker skinned children as well. No one’s speculating yet as to the origins of such beliefs or what the sources could be.

Which reminds me of a chapter in Blink, the Malcolm Gladwell’s book about first impressions. Thirty years ago there were very few women hired as musicians in national philharmonic orchestras.

A strange series of events led to a woman being hired as a trombone player for the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra after she auditioned behind a screen. Her performance was judged superior by far. They didn’t know she was a woman.

She got the job, but not without resistance once her gender was discovered. When eventually told they wanted a man for the position, she went to court. She won, but not before having to pass medical tests to prove her breathing capacity to be on a par with any man’s.

And yet, they refused to pay her equal salary. She went back to court. The battles lasted eight years and set a precedence for hiring women in orchestras world-wide.

Had Abbie Conant auditioned as a woman, she never would have been hired, even though her performance was picked as the best. Since then, screens have become commonplace for auditions and the number of women in the top U.S. orchestras has increased fivefold.

“Some people look like they sound better than they actually sound, because they look confident and have good posture,” said one veteran musician. “Other people look awful when they play but sound great… there is always this dissonance between what you see and hear.”

These statements could apply well to hiring interviews.

Here’s what’s important in these two examples: our first impressions aren’t always our best. We are often careless with our powers of rapid cognition. And in a blink, in a snap… we don’t know where our first impressions are coming from. We don’t always understand what they mean.

And we certainly don’t understand how fragile they can be. It’s like those studies of top executives and height. CEOs as a group are taller human beings. If there were a way to reliably measure good looks, I’ll bet they’d get higher marks there as well.

This is something to think about when interviewing for new hires.

The thing is, we can’t control those split second impressions anymore than we can control our fear of snakes or other primitive urges.

All we can do is become aware that prejudices and biases and snap impressions do exist. And since they are certain to cloud our judgments and decisions, we can remember to double check with trusted peers. And learn when to trust our instincts and when not to…

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